decision to travel

A Little Choice… or a Big One? Reflections Making Choices & Seven Years of Travel

Seven years ago, I boarded a flight that forever changed the direction of my life. The flight took me from Los Angeles, my home for the previous two years, to Sydney, Australia. Sydney was the first stop on a largely unplanned year of traveling around the world. The route would take me home by way of Asia and Europe. I was scared.

The morning of my flight, I called my bestie with breathy hiccuping sobs. I implored her to convince me that leaving LA to travel was the right decision. Tied up within those desperate and confused sobs were a myriad of fears. Fears related to the journey. Fears related to derailing my career as an actress. Fears hitting me as an abstract pain in knowing that I would see neither friends nor family for an entire year. In the 24 years I had been alive, I had never been alone for that long.

I have the best readers; one of them included this meme from Indiana Jones in his email. It really can feel like that big of a choice.
I have the best readers. One emailed me this meme when he wrote for advice. (And it’s thanks to a Portland-based reader, who tied me to a chair a year ago, that I watched Indiana Jones and understood the reference!)

I asked myself over and over in those final hours before I headed to the airport: What if this is the wrong choice?

That moment of struggle is one we all face at various points in our lives. Over the years, my readers email with a frequent and heartfelt email refrain of “how did you know you should go?”

They want to know what click of certainty happened to tell me this was the right decision. How did I know that the desire to travel long-term was the impulse I should follow, rather than other impulses. Impulses like staying to build a career, staying to solidify friendships and relationships. Should you take that fantastic job across country? Should you go to college? Should you pack up your life and travel for a year?

Deciding to travel involves a litany hard choices. It requires answering “no” to everything except travel. Each decision and answer the course of your life. No matter how you answer, you’ve now made a big decision. And alongside those hard choices are other struggles too. Some readers have unsupportive families, or fears of traveling solo, some fear leaving fabulous jobs, or are on the cusp of deciding to have kids, and many are struggling with eh lack of autonomy stemming from being a minor.

Readers email me in the throes of their own tough decisions. I email back with reassurances and advice. And to them, and here, I acknowledge that I hardly feel qualified to dole out pearls of life wisdom. Having taken that year-long trip, however, I will share my thought-process in making the big decision for an abrupt change.

Readers ask: “How did you know that taking a year to travel was the right choice?”

Quite simply, I didn’t know. Selling my things and getting on that plane seven years ago filled me with complete uncertainty and left few guarantees. In my obsession to label that trip as “the right direction for my life,” I missed the fact that using the terms “good choice” and “bad choice” is a fallacy in our language. You can choose wrong on a science test, you can’t chose wrong in constructing your life. A choices is a single decision; what comes next is a series of outcomes, reactions, and a trajectory that you continue to steer. Ensure that you’re not making the choice because of abstract fears and the status quo. These decisions construct the life you will lead for years to come. In that moment of choice, look at your priorities and assemble the pieces that build the life you want to live. Then, in a year—or many years from now—accept that you, with all your functioning capacity, chose the route.

how to decide to travel
Two pivotal decisions in my life. On the left, I drove across the country in 2006 with my dad on my move to LA We stopped at the Grand Canyon en route and everything I owned was in the trunk of my car. On the right is my final day as a Los Angeleno; I owned almost nothing and I hiked Runyon Canyon with friends hours before I boarded my flight to Sydney. Both shaped who I am and how I got here. I wouldn’t take back either decision.

The choice readers face is usually between long-term travel and a more prescriptive life, like taking a job, staying the course, etc. I had that moment of choice too, and I chose to travel. That choice set in motion a series of events that have me at a place in my life that I often love. I travel, I speak to college students, and I have this amazing community of like-minded people on A Little Adrift. How could that have been wrong?

The thing is, staying in Los Angeles would have likely been just as right. We are adaptable creatures. If we keep the comparison game in check and live with gratitude, like moths to the flame of positivity, we thrive in our environments. It’s not that LA would have been a wrong choice for me, but instead it’s my ghost life. Cheryl Strayed used a beautiful analogy that has stuck with me for years. When looking at our lives from afar, we can see a ghost ship floating along beside us. It’s the life we would have led had we made different decisions at pivotal moments. Leaving LA was a pivotal moment. I could have had a great life there, but I’ll never know what waited on that ghost ship.

For anyone facing this choice, know that you can stay put and build an amazing life and have no regrets. You can travel for a time and build an amazing life and also have no regrets. You can combine and mix them. It’s your decision and nothing is wrong. You can switch up any plan mid-stream, too. When I left to travel, I had this overwhelming fear of “what if I hate traveling and I want to come home but I’ve already told everyone my big plan and they will think I failed and it will be shameful to not be able to do it.”

And that was total bullshit. I did want to come home at points on my trip. After eight months, I desperately wanted to come home. I stayed the course for the rest of my year, but I decided to travel in six months stints going forward. That’s the balance that worked for me. I found my balance by testing the reaches of my comfort zones. To know the limits of my ideal life, I had to act on that initial idea of “hmm, what if I work and travel and see what that kind of life is like.”

decision to travel

The enormity of picking up your life and leaving, especially solo, can seem huge. It is huge. Travel is expensive. It’s doable—it’s comparable to a year of living in the U.S, whatever that may cost you right now, as it will likely approximate your travel style and budget on the road—but saving that much money is a considerable feat for many. When I left, my income was a smidge above poverty level. My online job allowed me to work every single week of these past seven years. Without that job, I would have spent years saving the funds. But I could have saved. Saving was within the realm of possible. Even more, the U.S. dollar is a strong currency, and I live in a country with work opportunities and a social safety net.

There is privilege in even having this choice. Recognizing this privilege snaps it into perspective for me when I get angsty. It’s a big decision, but there is only relative risk in either choice, to go or to stay. I carry around the world one of the most powerful passports. It gains me entrance—often for free—to a myriad of fascinating cultures and people and lands that generations before me could only see in the pages of their National Geographic magazine. In the depths of feeling like I was charting a course for self-destruction, it helps to remember that this is a privileged choice. It’s an honor to have this choice. If you have the means to travel the world—by way of having enough money and a strong passport—it’s a gift. I say this not to sway you to travel long-term, but to take the angst from the choice. Travel should never be a burden, travel is a gift. How long you travel, whether it’s on weekend trips meshed into your work-kids-home life, or whether it’s an epic journey to circumnavigate the globe—it’s going to be great either way.

I have a ghost life in Los Angeles. It floats next to me when I visit the city and walk the streets of my old neighborhood. This ghost life punches with nostalgia when I sit across from my ex eating lunch at what was once my favorite café. This life hovers just beyond my reach. It was an option; it was a path I could have taken. The path wasn’t more right or wrong, but it was drastically different from what I have now.

If I had ridden that other ghost ship, I would have given up all the highs and lows of these past seven years on the road. And, to be sure, moments on that other path might have been just as sweet and transformative. I would have held tight to LA-based memories shimmering with goodness and happiness. As I have written many times in the past, though, travel was my bootcamp for life. Having made this choice, and the past seven years of people, places, and stories form the bedrock of who I am today.

I looked at the possible ships my life could take that day. With all the unknowns, uncertainties, and fears, I picked up my suitcase and boarded that plane seven years ago. There were no guarantees and no promises. I stood with no more than the power and privilege of making my own life choices. I am so glad I chose travel.

~Shannon

A Little Discussion… Health and Travel Sickness in Long-term Travel

One of the scariest obstacles to international travel is often the health question. In my planning stages for my own round the world trip I fretted over the health side of the equation because it was the big unknown. Beyond vaccinating myself, stocking my medical kit, and buying really good travel insurance, the rest was out of my control, and I really like maintaining control. Alongside the common questions I’ve covered these past few months in my ongoing series about facing fears and obstacles to travel, the health topic is a big one. It crops up in many reader emails as pre-planning questions, but I have also wrestled with guilt from time to time because there is no promise of health. Over the years, several long-time readers emailed me about their health battles after setting out on their big trip overseas.

Thatbyinnyu Temple temple in the background in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)
Though I was sick every day of our Myanmar trip, I wouldn’t trade those memories of traveling with my niece for all the world. :)

While my travel planning resource page tackles a lot of the basic questions, it doesn’t factor in the emotional toll that health can take on you while traveling. I discussed fears of physical dangers earlier this summer, but the health topic is one I have thought about how to approach for many months. At the most basic level, it’s more dangerous on your health to travel than stay home. And in the other fears I discussed, that was either not the case, or the risks were relatively equal. But with the type of travel I undertake, it’s often to remote areas without medical access and with serious diseases—areas where I willingly put myself at more of a health risk than staying put in a place with quick and easy hospital access.

I state this so clearly out of respect for the adventurous travelers who have ventured out on trips and faced their own obstacles and stumbles. For the woman who emailed me for advice after she took off on her first trip to India, only to fly home weeks later with a persistent and lasting battle with giardia for more than ten months (she ended each email with the assertion she would resume her trip once better though!). And for others who emailed me saying they felt like they did something wrong because they got sick right away, or robbed on the first day of travel, or lonely on day two.

Travel is not always glamorous and though I believe it’s worth the trade-off, it’s best to have a healthy respect for the issues so you take the right precautions. First let’s look at a rundown of what I’ve faced since I left in 2008, perspectives on the long-term effect on my health, and then a long list of tips and resources to keep you safe and healthy on the road.

The Sickness Rundown

Shiva on the Ganges River
Shiva watching over the Ganges River–my first sight of  Rishikesh after battling food poisoning on the night train.

Leaving to travel I knew I had general health on my side—I ate a healthy vegetarian diet, hiked reluctantly but often, and rarely faced serious illness. My only Achilles heel is a bizarre and varied list of allergies to things that bite/sting. Not too bad, and so, let’s look at the serious and not-so-serious things my immune system was up to over the past five years:

  • Laryngitis: It was November 2008, mere weeks into my round the world trip, and my Florida-girl sensibilities couldn’t handle the biting cold of Australia’s south coast. I completely lost my voice for five days after losing my week-long battle with a hellacious cold.
  • Head lice: Not sickness per se, but not ideal thanks to a very suspect hostel in Melbourne, Australia.
  • Dysentery: My most severe illness in my life; I likely acquired it from the fresh fruit smoothies rampant in Luang Prabang, Laos or from the fresh veggies I ate there as well. I described it in more depth here, but suffice to say it worsened so rapidly because of the nonexistent healthcare infrastructure in the country, and the fact that I was in a remote region when I realized it wasn’t just a casual bout of traveler’s diarrhea. The key here was hydration, and it’s the only reason I lived through it (hydration and charcoal tablets to be precise).
  • Food poisoning: Complements of a lukewarm plate of vegetables from a street stall in McLeod Ganj, India in 2009. The illness struck hours later and lasted throughout my overnight train; I spent the dark dawn hours balanced over the open hole in the train bathroom depositing my dinner onto the whooshing train-tracks as we sped toward Rishikesh. It was awesome.
  • Allergic reaction:  After hiking around Croatia’s national parks and sustaining a tick bite, I found myself with hives and bumps that would not respond to Benadryl—after pantomiming with a pharmacist in Bosnia who spoke no English, she gave me an amazing wonder-cream I still use to this day.
  • Allergic reaction: I don’t know what caused my severe allergic reaction in Belize in 2010, but I found myself covered in hives and my throat started closing. The local doctor then poked my arms/hands so many times trying to find a vein for the shot that I passed out; when I woke up he had managed it with a jab to the buttocks. 12+ hours later, with my symptoms still serious and since I didn’t know what was causing the allergic reaction, I left Belize and all returned to normal.
  • Scabies: A delightful gift from what I thought was a nice guesthouse in Guatemala. Words can not express how awful and itchy scabies is. On the funny side, I baffled the pharmacist when I asked, in Spanish, for scabicide. Our animated argument lasted at least five minutes, it included all locals passing by, and all insisted that there was no way I had scabies. I did. She finally handed over the bottle, at which point I spent two days dealing with the fun process of washing every single thing I own and coating myself in poison from neck-to-toe.
  • Motorbike accident: I crashed my motorbike on a bridge in Laos and sustained a good deal of road-rash as well as a serious muffler burn on my ankle that sent me into shock. Luang Prabang has a very basic hospital now that bandaged me up and sent me on my way. I wrote a bit here more about the danger of traffic accidents and travel.
  • Giardia: My second most severe illness and this one was also contracted in Laos; it took effect on my birthday in 2011. I thought I had food poisoning at my birthday dinner with friends in Thailand, but weeks later as Ana and I traveled through Myanmar I realized I had some hallmark symptoms of giardia, which include really lovely sulfur burps. I could not find the medicine for giardia, metronidazole, while in Myanmar so I waited it out for three more weeks until I returned to Thailand. At that point the Thai doctors had a conniption fit over my weight loss and ran heaps of tests and heaps of medicine before they would call me “fixed.”
  • Worms: There is every chance that I carried worms for a year before I figured out why I couldn’t gain the weight back from my bout with giardia. It was my friends Bessie and Kyle, who had lived in Myanmar, who pointed out in February of this year that I sounded like I was still carrying worms/parasites. Good call, I was.

And now, after that last bout with de-worming and antibiotics, which I took while I was in Mexico earlier this year, I am finally feeling really good. I am healthy in a way I haven’t been for years. I am fairly positive that I am parasite-free, and I am so good, in fact, that my best friend convinced me to train for a marathon in January. :)

The Toll on My Health

My cat, Sylar, also called Baby Kitty despite being huge now.
My cat, Sylar, also called Baby Kitty despite being huge now. And despite my allergies I deal with it because he’s too cute for us to send away. :)

I haven’t come out of these past five years unscathed, but this varied list of ailments doesn’t make me fear travel. Quite the opposite, most of these I listed I forgot about until I made this list because once the illness passes I am back to enjoying being on the road, hearing new stories, and meeting new people. I am pretty big on being prepared, and then accepting that you can’t do much in life beyond that.

I am a planner and a preparer, I carry a well-stocked medical kit—double stocked when my niece Ana traveled with me—and my kit has helped me and dozens of other travelers I met along the way who needed help. And that’s a biggie, I ask for help and have played the pantomime game with pharmacists all over the world to find the medicine I needed.

Before traveling, my only known allergies were mild reactions to stinging/biting things (as I child I was very allergic to fleas), and a mild cat allergy. Over the years all my allergies worsened, with the most notable change after dysentery, when I took a huge course of strong antibiotics and I was underweight and undernourished for months after it. On the other side of that illness I have much more severe allergies to the mundane things like seasonal allergies and hay-fever—and I’ll know within seconds if you have a cat in your house.

Ana is all smiles with her soup in Hpa-An, Burma.
Ana never got sick on our trip despite her adventurous appetite. Here she gives me a thumbs up for our yummy breakfast in Hpa-An, Myanmar.

And as much as past health helps, it’s as much about luck, experience, and preparedness to stay healthy on the road. And I’ll note time and again that I come out smiling and grateful for the travels and life I’ve led these past five years. Though there is little chance I would have contracted some of these illnesses if I wasn’t on the road, there surely would have been something else cropping up instead.

10 Practical Tips to Avoid Travel Sickness & Stay Healthy

  1. Practical Tips for Avoiding Travel SicknessGet your vaccines: Vaccinations are an important part of off-the-beaten path travel and all new travelers should visit their local health clinic for the recommended vaccines. A full list of tips and resources is here.
  2. Carry a medical kit: While you can easily buy a travel medical kit to get you started, I recommend customizing it to meet your needs and adding a few things that are often lacking. I noted that oral rehydration salts were a life-saver several times, as was a general antibiotic, and heaps of antihistamines.
  3. Buy travel insurance: I have never used my travel insurance but I highly recommend having it just in case, especially if you’re traveling long-term. I use World Nomads or IMG Patriot and generally think one of these two are the best options I have found; my review is here.
  4. Read and research: Read up on the places you’re traveling, ask other travelers what precautions they took for the region, and learn what you need about your own health to keep you safe. Read How to Shit Around the World, which wins for the best title ever, and it also unapologetically discusses everything you might need to know when sick on the road, never shying from “eww” topics, instead dispensing advice and life-saving information.
  5. Take physical precautions: Your research should tell you the reasonable precautions to take; in many tropical regions mosquito bite prevention is important; consider Deet, malaria medicines, and/or a mosquito net as needed for your specific trip. Wash your hands a lot—more than you ever would back home.
  6. Learn about food safety: Carry your own utensils (I carry this spork), and research the ways to spot good street food stalls and restaurants. My friend Jodi wrote the Food Traveler’s Handbook and it’s a great guide that not only helps you delve deeper into a place’s food culture, but she offers heaps of practical tips for food and eating safety.
  7. Learn about water safety: Drinking water in developing countries is not always safe. But there are very effective precautions you can take. I used a SteriPen on the road (my full review here), and something like a LifeStraw could also be effective in ensuring that you’re never stuck without clean drinking water.
  8. Stay hydrated: Anything related to diarrhea and vomiting have severe dehydration side effects. Carry oral rehydration salts and drink electrolytes and minerals when you’re suffering from any bout of diarrhea or vomiting. Proper hydration may be the single thing that stops an illness from turning fatal before you can find medical help. Most outdoors stores (like REI, my favorite) sell oral rehydration salts to stock your medical kit before you leave. It’s also cheap to refill your supplies on the road in the more developed countries on your route (Thailand had them in every pharmacy, Laos did not).
  9. Take preventive measures: Antibiotics wreak havoc on your system and kill all the good bacteria in your body alongside the bad. Take probiotic pills and eat yogurt, kefir, or other foods with live cultures not only during your course of antibiotics, but throughout any region where you’re battling intestinal issues, they really help keep you healthy. Also get enough sleep and eat healthy, which is tricky on the road but helps your recovery time when you do get sick!
  10. Ask for help when you need it: This includes seeking medical help, asking locals to help when your condition is serious, and generally communicating. People are kind all over the world, and if you’re in a tough spot you need to let others know about your illness and let them help you find help. I’m not a doctor and so if I feel like things are out of control I have learned to immediately ask for help—between the humidity in tropical regions, risk of infection, and poor sanitation and healthcare, situations can deteriorate quickly. If  you think you’re seriously ill, don’t just self-diagnose on WebMD, go get help.
  11. Bonus: Keep a positive attitude: I noted in the loneliness post that being sick on the road was the loneliest I have ever felt on the road, and maintaining a positive attitude after hugging a toilet for days is tough, but essential to helping you stay healthy and recover faster. You’re not alone and the rest of the traveler’s posting happy photos on Facebook don’t have  a secret recipe for health; all long-term travelers have battled sickness on the road.

Next month I have a whole post coming about tackling toilet time on the road, mostly because it’s seems so infrequently discussed, but I suspect it’s one of those things readers Google while their browser is in incognito mode. It’s important to maintain honesty about travel, and health is one of those things. I’ll be the first to encourage someone to take the leap and travel asap, but with that leap comes the responsibility to stay informed.

With that in mind, is there anything I missed, tips you’ve found for staying healthy on the road or any resources that add to the topic of health and travel sickness for new or worried travelers? 

This post is a part of my monthly series on overcoming fears to travel, check out all the posts here, new ones on the first Tuesday of every month.

Resources to Stay Healthy While You Travel

  • How to Shit Around the World: The Art of Staying Clean and Healthy While Traveling:What happens when you travel in developing countries, for long periods of time, without a SteriPen? This book offers a frank and unapologetic discussion of everything from diarrhea to parasites, and other gastrointestinal nastiness. It doesn’t shy away from any topic that may impact your health—it should be a mandatory primer guide for all travelers.
  • The Healthy Conscious Traveler: 8 Pathways to Smart and Effortless Travel: Written by a holistic healer and alternative medicine practitioner, this book offers a range of advice for staying healthy on the road, including self-assessment tests to discover travel sensitivities, as well as techniques for relieving stress, jetlag, and more. It’s great because it offers ideas that aren’t simply “find a doctor and get medicine.”
  • SteriPen Adventurer Opti: Long-term travelers, or those spending a lot of time outdoor (camping, trekking, etc) should look into the SteriPen as an investment in their health, particularly for those traveling in developing countries.
  • LifeStraw Personal Water Filter: Portable and effective, this straw can be used from a RTW trip to a camping trip—and everything in between. It’s an easy addition to any packing list because it’s both small and it’s fairly inexpensive.
gifts for travelers

A Little Review… The 8 Best Travel Gifts for Women

As a long-term traveler on the road for more than eight years, I have carefully tested and tried countless travel products. My first was for the perfect travel purse—and after several years on the road, I found one that does the trick for most types of trip. Travelers don’t have a lot of extra space, so it’s important to find just the right gear. There’s an art to travel, and I spent dozens of trips testing options in an effort to reach that perfect mix of practical and useful—but still stylish!

Although finding a great cross-body travel purse was my first goal, over the years I’ve found a few other things that always make it into my luggage. Some of these I bought myself, others were gifts from family members. If you’re searching for the perfect travel gift for a woman in your life, know that all of these things make my travels more enjoyable, and make me look like a more put-together traveler!

1. My Favorite Cross-Body Travel Purse

The best cross-body purse for travelers. It can be hard to find the right fit, size and comfort, but his one is well-designed and perfect for stylish yet comfortable and convenient travels!A lot of travelers, like me, carry a purse in everyday life, so it makes sense to carry one while traveling. I’ve tried to carry my things just in a backpack, or in my pockets, but it’s not for me. So I searched for the perfect travel purse. I have carried expensive bags, cheap sack-like bags, regular purses, messenger bags—none of these bags ever quite kept pace with my travels. I started my yearlong RTW trip with an AmeriBag—this worked well and was easy on my back (it’s designed to remove stress for those with back problems), but it’s not very stylish. And the Baggallini Travel bag is a finalist—it looks good but it’s less durable, so consider gifting it for those who take shorter vacations (like a European trip) versus long-term backpacking.

I did find the perfect travel bag—the Donner by Overland Equipment—but they discontinued it in 2015. When I needed a replacement travel purse, I renewed the search and settled on Travelon, which channels what I loved about the Donner. It’s the best crossbody travel purse I’ve yet found on the market. I like that it looks nice enough to carry out to dinner, but also holds my camera, water bottle, and sightseeing gear.

The Travelon Anti-Theft Cross-Body Bag emerged as a clear leader for its combination of size, functionality, and number of pockets. If you’re a long-term traveler, it will keep pace with your travels, and if you’re heading to Europe, it will transition from go-bag for sightseeing to dinner with friends.

  • Sturdy features, the material is strong and the strap is wide and comfortable.
  • Great convenience factors; there are a range of pockets in various areas so you can easily store and find things. I like the back zippered pocket to hold my tickets and passport for quick access.
  • Good looking and versatile; works in a range of situations from sightseeing to dinner.
  • A great size; this purse fits an outing’s worth of stuff in it: water bottle, sunglasses, mirrorless camera, notebook, snack, chap-stick and Kindle.
  • Anti-theft features; I usually travel with a carabiner to secure my purse strap, and this one has it built it. So handy! It also has locking zippers and slash-proof fabric. In Europe, the carabiner and anti-theft features are particularly ideal so you can affix the purse to your chair in places like Paris and Rome where petty theft is high.

I always carry a purse on my travels, and if you’re looking for something ideal for your trips, this one hits all of my positives. That said, it’s on the larger end of the bag perspective (I always need mine to fit my camera). So if you want a lower-profile option, the Travelon Anti-Theft Classic Messenger Bag has the same anti-theft features but a bit of a lower profile. And to go completely safe but low-profile, this Be Safe bag is cute and won’t make you look like a tourist!

Picking one out as a travel gift for the woman in your life: Amazon has a range of gorgeous colors. I prefer the black Travelon so that it matches a lot, but the grey one is cute, too.

2. A Stylish Pocket Scarf

Wearing a scarf is a great way to dress up an outfit when you’re traveling, and a Pocket Scarf is a fun, practical addition to your travel wardrobe. It’s wicked useful and come in several of colors. Women can use the pocket to keep passport, credit cards, and spare cash safe as you roam around Europe or squeeze through crowded streets in Asia. This is also a great way to go lightweight for a night out on the town as it takes the place of a small clutch.

The best travel wardrobes have items that function in different capacities, and this wins on that front. Give this travel gift to a woman backpacking in Europe, or perhaps one planning a lot of overland travel. She won’t regret tossing one of these into her bag in a neutral color that coordinates with most of her outfits.

Note: I own this black scarf from Clever Travel Companion (a company specializing in pickpocket proof clothing) and it is a winter scarf—it’s larger and thicker. This Pierron & Co one is a bit lighter for multi-season travel. Both companies use great materials that will last—cheaper brands use thin material that shows the bulky contents of your scarf (thus defeating the purpose of hiding things in it!).

3. A Stylish, Warm, Durable Cardigan

best travel caridganLook no further for the perfect cardigan for your trip. Made from Merino wool (a breed of sheep from Spain), the Icebreakers Bliss Cardigan is my favorite piece of travel clothing. It’s a travel must, especially when venturing around Europe. The weather fluctuates a lot in Europe and you are likely facing warm days and cool evenings. The great thing about Merino wool is that it stays cool in warm weather and warm in cold weather. Having a good sweater is important so that you can keep yourself warm on chilly planes, buses, and trains. And even more, this sweater looks so good that I always get compliments on it when I’m on the road. It works just as well on a plane as it does in a bar for happy hour. I own this sweater in grey and blue, and one of them is always in my travel bag.

 4. Cute, Comfortable Sandals

stylish travel sandalI never thought I would say this, but I have found the perfect travel sandals and they’re Crocs. I am in love with my sandals. I know, don’t make that face though, because I’m going to make my case.

The Crocs Sexi Flip Sandal is so comfortable, and surprisingly stylish, too. Like my cardigan, people have stopped me on the street to ask about my sandals. They’re as comfortable as you would expect from a pair of Crocs, but the style is downright trendy. The soles are manmade and the ankle strap fits well (they are very tight when you first order them, so round up a size and know that they fit much better once you wear them in for a day or two).

I have worn these through a dozen countries now and they’ve never given me a blister. I am on my third pair, each lasts me about a year of near constant use. This is the perfect sandal for hot summer days spent wandering through historic European cities or rural villages in Africa or Asia.

5. Smartphone Security

lifeproof case reviewYour smartphone is likely one of the most expensive items in your day bag and the traveler in your life (or you!) should keep it safe. The best cases on the market are both the Otterboxes and the Lifeproof cases. While Otterboxes are good for daily use, the Lifeproof FRE case wins out for travelers. There is a reason why Lifeproof cases are so popular among travelers: They are almost indestructible. Lifeproof cases protect your phone from falls, sand, snow, and water. Anything you dream up for your trip—your phone case can handle it. There are several colors and styles available, and they also have a floating case if you’re planning a beach holiday.

6. Stylish Camera Scarf

comfortable camera strapFinding a comfortable camera strap is challenging. If you own a DSLR, or if  you opted for the Lumix that I recommend, then you might want to upgrade your camera strap. With the Capturing Couture Scarf Strap, I love the idea of a camera strap that is made from a scarf. Made from soft jersey fabric, this scarf camera strap is comfortable, functional, and stylish. It will look great as you snap photos of anything from the Taj Majal to the Eiffel Tower.

7. The Perfect Travel Camera

perfect camera for travelDepending your travel styles, most travelers have done away with point-and-shoot cameras in favor of using cell phones. And it’s a solid trade-off. You don’t need to have a big fancy DSLR camera to take great photos when you’re travelling. That said, for a traveler visiting once-in-a-lifetime locations, consider a small but powerful micro-four-thirds for the traveling woman in your life.

The Panasonic LUMIX GX85 is phenomenal. I use the GX7 and this line of cameras upped my photography game considerably, while not adding the weight of a DSLR camera.These line of cameras are the hands-down best travel cameras for quality and size. While most travelers will enjoy using their phone for convenience, for those who want to truly record their journey, read my review of my Panasonic LUMIX—it’s my favorite purchase in years. And the GX85 now comes with a lens bundle and is half the price of what I paid for mine, so it’s a real steal.

8. Travel Themed Jewelry

Gorgeous Travel-Themed JewelryAdorable Silver Travel Bracelets: Love the Zenned Out store on Etsy. If you buy the sterling silver you can easily use on the road without worrying about showering with it on, but still look cute and class-up that wrist of traveler bracelets all long-term travelers seem to collect.

Gorgeous travel themed necklaces: I love this compass necklace(adorable, fashionable, and could perhaps pass for practical?) and I bought myself this antiqued plane charm necklacethis globe is stunning, and I completely geek-out for this solar system necklace.

stylish travel giftsOther Travel Gift Ideas

In addition to these travel items, I always pack a few extra things that make my travels easier.

  • Backup Battery: If you’ll be using your smartphone then don’t forget a backup battery. I carry the mid-priced and compact Jackery power bar, or consider the Power Brik Portable charger, which is less expensive, slim, and it will carry at least one charge for your phone.
  • Reading Material: I always bring a Kindle as I like have a single-purpose device and no distractions. You can download a few books related to the country you’re visiting and learn about the history, culture, and people as you travel.
  • Tunes for the Road: Spotify won’t work overseas, so consider upgrading to Spotify Premium for your trip. With premium, I download all of my music so I have offline tunes for the train rides and days out wandering new cities.
  • Handy Travel Journal: There are no better notebooks than a Moleskin and this travel themed one is super cute.

That wraps up the handful of my very favorite travel items that make it into my backpack on each trip, despite the extra weight. And there are other things I love (my backpack, my hiking boots, etc), but each one of these items have made my travels better in some identifiable way. As a traveler, every single thing I add to my backpack adds to the weight I carry on my back.

And as a woman running a business from all over the word, I need to look nice when I’m on the road. For this reason I am ruthless and meticulous about what I allow into my bag. And while many of these items cost more than other brands, these are the ones that tend to combine quality, style, and function. If it’s only going to break or look misshapen a few weeks into my trip, then it’s not a good purchase. My full travel packing list is here. And if you’re interested in generally the best gifts for world travelers, I put together a gift guide for those who love to travel—practical and inspirational gifts!

pretty clouds lake district

A Little Technology … How a Long-Term Traveler Backs Up Heaps of Data

When set off traveling in 2008, I never fathomed what a data hog I would become over the years. I left the US with my trusty (but old) PC laptop and a point and shoot camera. And what’s hilarious to me now, is that I felt like I was overdoing it compared to the romantic round the world journeys a century ago—they sufficed with a journal and a pen on their long overland trips. But I had to travel with my laptop so I could work and blog from the road, and the camera was a given.

reading in hammock
My niece Ana camped out in a hammock on Otres Beach in Cambodia as she finished the Percy Jackson series on the Kindle. Those Kindle books=more types of data to store now!

Fast forward to now though, and packing heaps of technology when we travel seems par for the course: I think nothing of traveling with my laptop, a smartphone, my Kindle, my nice camera, and a backup hard drive. I read data on our outrageous and upward spiraling demands on data usage recently, and scientists are looking to DNA, bacteria, and diamonds even as an eventual solution to the compounding effect of each person’s growing digital footprint. No faded photos for us, scratched and worn throughout a century,it’s feasible to think my great-grandchildren could read an archived incarnation of this very blog.

guatemala postage stamps
Enough stamps to get my backup hard drives and some souvenirs from Guatemala to Florida–and yes, I licked each and every one. ;-)

Now, one could argue there’s no need to preserve every nuance of my digital life, but today, I do actually need the data I create, and I realized I needed a more effective way to store the heaps of data I produced every week as a long-term traveler—gigs upon gigs of photos, documents, videos, etc.  In my first two years of travel, I sporadically mailed home DVDs filled with my photos and I backed up information locally on a small external hard drive that I bought in Slovenia eight months into my trip. Sadly, just as I was leaving for Central America, I discovered that one my two backup hard drives was corrupted. And because my backup copies were not meticulous, in one moment I had lost all my photographs from my many months in Nepal and India.

The news devastated me. And I learned four important lessons from it:

  1. Backup often.
  2. Backup everything.
  3. Backup online.
  4. Backup in multiple places.

I haven’t figured out the exact perfect solution to fully storing everything, but between external hard drives, online storage in the Cloud, and remote backups to a home computer, I have the found a workable rhythm and a complete backup system for long-term travelers like me! So let’s look at the highs and lows of each three, as well as why I’ve chosen this exact setup for backing up … each one has specific reasons to be used in tandem with the others.

Backup Online to the Cloud

The best way I’ve upgraded my digital life was through online backup and storage in the Cloud. Most of us use Cloud storage everyday now without even thinking about it. Gmail and Google Documents stores your data in this mysterious “Cloud,” as do photo storage companies like SmugMug, which is where I host all the edited photos for this site—it’s a pretty interface and my preferred choice as a photographer and blogger combo.

But these are both file specific Cloud backups. Full online backup solutions on the other hand, provide complete coverage for laptops and hard drives—they backup every single file on your computer, every single day into the Cloud.

crashplan backup reviewBack in May, CrashPlan approached me to ask if I was interested in testing out their backup services for a year. I was already sold on this type of service, (my friend Jodi bought Mozy backup services when someone stole her laptop and she lost everything), and I was keen to try an easier way than what I was doing—solely backing up files manually.

So I agreed and here we are, six months later. Below I’ll outline the pros and cons of CrashPlan and online Cloud storage, particularly with international travelers in mind.

Because it’s not perfect, but it is pretty close.

Pros for Online Cloud Storage:

  • Data is immediately backed up. The software checks every file and folder on my computer daily (or even hourly) for changes and backs up files immediately into the cloud.
  • Automatically sinks and checks your entire computer. I never have to “remember” to backup certain files or folders, the software does it automatically each day at during the times I specified.
  • Can restore to my backup if my computer is stolen. CrashPlan won’t save my computer, but all the data is secure and I can restore it to a fresh computer if mine is lost/stolen/broken.
  • Access your files immediately online. My laptop crashed a few months ago, before CrashPlan had even  finished the initial backup, but it saved my life by allowing me to quickly grab my client’s most important files until I got my laptop repaired.
  • Ability to set percentage of processor used for backing up. The program can easily run in the background without me noticing very much, but for the first months of the initial backup I kept the computer on all night and let it use full processing power.
  • Seed drives allow an easier initial backup. I did not use a seed drive, but Dan and Audrey had great success using CrashPlan’s seed drive, which you fill with your data and then mail to them—it’s faster than doing that first backup entirely through the internet.

Cons to Backing up to the Cloud:

  • Initial backup time is lengthy. It took eleven weeks to back up the 300 gigs of photos and videos from my home internet connection in the United States. And while that’s a fair amount of time for that much data, for a traveler it’s worth knowing ahead of time so you can buy before you leave, and/or time it to when you will have solid internet connections (or do the seed drive service).
  • Backing up each day relies on an internet connection. Your files only backup when you are online, so if you’re in a country without much internet, or with slow internet speeds (I’m looking at you India and Bali) it can take many days and a lot of bandwidth to back up a lot of photos and video.
  • The backup uses processing power. I’m a multitasker at heart, so I often have dozens of programs open at once: Photoshop, a browser, Tweetdeck, Evernote, Word … the list is long and I have occasionally paused CrashPlan for a couple of hours when I was hard at work on something else.

Bonus things I happen to love about CrashPlan is: the user interface (it’s intuitive and simple), customer service is speedy to respond, they have tiered pricing plans (which will come in handy when I pay to renew next summer). And for you Mac users, all the major backup companies work for you guys too.

Also, note upfront that “backing up” and “archiving” do not mean the same thing, CrashPlan backs up the hard drives I have, but if I delete a file, so does it (on a delay though in case you need it!). It’s not data storage per se, the service is made as a fail-safe—if something happens to your hard drive, you can use their mirror image of it to duplicate the information on a new drive. Which is what we’ll get to next, the external hard drives as a second step in the complete traveler back up solution.

Love the Clouds
How pretty are those clouds in the Lakes District in England?

 

Back up on External Hard Drives

As a (mostly) solo traveler, all my data is usually stored in one place: me. Even if I spread out the hard drives and store them in different backpacks/luggage, I am the one carrying all my data on a travel day, which makes the thought of theft daunting. But online backup alone just isn’t enough because most backup services are a duplication of what you have on your computer/hard drives.

That means I still have to keep terabytes of information at my fingertips. So, I carry my laptop as the first storage spot—it has a 450 gig hard drive—and a small external hard drive as my backup. Now, all hard drives can fail (as I found out the hard way), and it’s likely best to have two external ones, but I have found the combination of laptop and external hard drive effective for now since I have amble online and remote storage as well.

Best external, portable hard drive options for travelers:

  • Western Digital Passport: This is my current hard drive, it’s tiny (literally the size of a passport), reliable, and durable—mine has traveled through at least 20 countries and is still kicking.
  • LaCie Rugged: This will be the next portable hard drive I buy; my current one is creeping up in age (three plus years of a hard life on the road) and the LaCie rugged looks like it can take a beating. The brand is solid according to my techie friends, so I’ll likely buy one of these in the next few months so that I have my Passport, and this rugged one both.
  • Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt: This one is super fast and fancier than the other two, the device’s transfer rate is higher because it has a Thunderbolt connection.
  • Transcend Information with Military Drop Standards: A reader submitted this one for consideration–he noted that it has similar proportions to the Passport, but very rugged and sturdy!

Remote Backup to a Home Computer

My dad is a computer systems engineer (official title) and at the core it really just means that he enjoys the geeky side of all things computers. When I left to travel his top concern was a way for me to back up to his home computer remotely. Though this was tricky in my first years of travel, CrashPlan has completely free-to-use remote backup software that allows me to now easily access my dad’s computer network—we have four working computers online and running SETI at all times—so I backup to those hard drives. This is the icing on the cake for me in my quest preserve every single aspect of my digital life since it effectively means all my old files and any new files are easily accessible. :)

E.T. and Elliot
Yep, my dad’s computers are left on all the time so we can process radio waves and hope to find E.T.’s home :)

There are ways to do remote backups via FTP (my dad’s first method of choice years ago) but software like what CrashPlan offers (again, this service is free) is easier. Much easier. Like Cloud storage though, it requires a strong internet connection. It also requires hard drive space, a computer that is turned on, and it must have the CrashPlan software installed on both ends (yours and the backup computer). It’s easy to set up, but it’s something you should do before you head out on the road (my mother would never have the skills to install it, but any of my friends could do it easily … if that gives you a gauge of the difficulty).

The Trifecta of Storage Near-Perfection

The last year of my digital life has felt the most secure. After I lost my photos in 2010, I saw how tenuously connected we all are to this digital life. I had no negatives in my hands to simply re-print the photos I lost. My story has a surprisingly happy ending, I gave my broken hard drive to my friend Doug who was studying advanced data recovery at University, and after a year testing different programs on my sad little hard drive, he recovered all the data. I did a happy dance of thanks when he emailed me the news. :)

Pink skin from Holi and picking up the Taj Mahal from Agra.
My life was missing this photo of me–pink-tinged skin and all because of Holi–picking up the Taj Mahal. Thanks for giving it back to me Doug, I won’t be that careless again, I promise! :)

I don’t expect him to create a miracle like that again, however, so I use these three fairly simply methods to ensure that all my work files, my photos, and my documents are secure. The fact that I sometimes have very little access to the internet is the only hitch in this current method—the moment we have global free 3G access I will do a giant happy dance. But since that is decades away from becoming a reality, I will stick with Cloud, external, and remote storage in tandem to keep me traveling.

How do you manage your digital life and data storage?

Backpacking-with-Ana-in-bangkok

A Little Disturbing … No Officials Ask for My Minor’s Travel Documents

Now that Ana and I are firmly back from our six months in Southeast Asia, I feel compelled to reflect back on some of the technicalities of traveling. There will be more stories, but some aspects preparing for our trip were far more stressful for me than needed…and once on the road a bit more disturbing. You see, in the weeks leading up to the big trip with my niece Ana, I was a nervous ball of energy rocketing around St. Petersburg. Ana had never left the country before, so I orchestrated all the paperwork for her passport and arranged the documents to leave the country with a minor who is not my child.

I stressed, I worried with my friends at weekly dinners about glitches we might encounter, and I planned out my speech to the immigration officials about our six month adventure homeschooling throughout Southeast Asia. I had it all scripted at the passport counter: They would raise an eyebrow at how very unconventional we are by leaving on this trip. I would laugh and talk about my years of traveling and writing. Ana would pitch in a happy “yay!” for good measure. The officials would look at the paperwork signed by her parents, ask her a few questions, then stamp us on our way.

traveling with a minor documents
The documents I took with us to legally travel around the world with my niece Ana, a minor child not my own.

The reality?

No one ever questioned us. Not one single question. I flew out of the United States on an international flight to Thailand, via South Korea, and no one blinked an eye when I passed over the passport for a child who:

  • Does not share my last name.
  • Is quite obviously a minor at just 11 years-old.
  • Has a passing resemblance to me (eye color and race is about it).
  • Is leaving her country of residence.
  • Was sullen and pretty unhappy when we first left.
  • Is not my child.

I have crossed international borders and entered and exited five countries with my niece (the US, Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Cambodia), and never once did anyone check to make sure I had the right to travel with her.

This fact disturbs me. A lot. So much, in fact, I will likely keep her passport locked up in my parent’s bank safe once we return because if I can so easily leave with her, what’s to stop anyone else from leaving the US with her?

I remember reading about some new laws in the US, about both parents having to show consent for a minor to leave the country as a way to stop custody disputes from ending poorly. I never paid much attention to this sort of news, since it had little relevancy to me, but I always assumed those people traveling with children were at least lightly questioned, particularly if they were not traveling as a happy little nuclear family, with mom, dad, kids and perfectly matching last names.

Clearly I was wrong though, because no one gives two hoots.

Okay, to be fair, the very last month, when we crossed into Cambodia overland from Thailand, one official working on our Cambodian visas walked over and asked if Ana was my daughter. I thought, “thank god!” but responded, “no, she’s my niece.”

And with that he turned and walked away, then came back moments later with our passports (and our shiny new Cambodian visas inside), and gave us a large smile as he shooed us on our way.

Air Bagan plane on tarmac
Ana and the GotPassport.org family get ready to board our Air Bagan flight from Chiang Mai to Yangon, Burma.

When we sent away to the Burmese embassy for our visas, I even tried to give them my paperwork, and the woman said “we just need your passports, nothing else.”

Here’s the thing, I’m not much of an alarmist, so when we first left the US and immigration gave us surly, uncurious permission to board our international flight, I chalked it up to a fluke. And honestly I was still recovering from the final days of packing stress, so it didn’t phase me much. Then, as we began crossing borders via bus, boat, plane, and train…it hit me that no one is asking questions and caring about the situation. I printed out paperwork in triplicate and stashed it in three different bags, yet just yesterday I unpacked it here at home, and it is still as crisp and unused as the day I pulled it from my printer seven months ago.

Frankly, I don’t know if this is normal. I had assumptions going into this trip that crossing borders would be a chore, but a necessary one to ensure the safety of our children. I wanted this to be the case to justify my faith in our system.

backpacking in bangkok
After 6 months on the road, my niece and I packed and ready for the airport after a delicious street food pit-stop in Bangkok, just before our final flight home-ward bound!

Before I left, I had planned to write a post along the lines of “here’s what you need to travel with a minor not your own.” Instead, I’ll note that this is what I brought with me and have never once used:

In case you also feel a need for over preparedness, those are links to view blank versions of the files I used, linked to a shared Google document; I modified the documents from other sources I found online and tweaked for them international travel and my unique situation. I am not a lawyer, nor do I have any superpowers to create official documents. In fact, I designed these for my specifics, so use at your own risk, ask your lawyer to look over them, and all that jazz. In other news, I had each of the notarized ones done twice, one for each parent, and the Guardianship document in particular is unique because of the length of our travels, and how young my niece was during our trip. I felt better for having it, but might not have done one for a shorter trip…really comes down to a personal judgment call and research on the current laws before you leave!

As for the rest of it, I just had to blog about it because even now as I try to adjust my expectations and assumptions, it still strikes me as odd that if I have a kid’s passport in my hand it’s that easy to simply disappear off the grid.

What’s your take on this? All I have is my experience to hold this against, but have you ever been questioned when traveling with your own minors or someone elses’ ? Do you think the border controls are too lax? Am I overreacting here?

A Little Review… The Perfect Travel Camera, My Panasonic Lumix

Since I first left to travel in 2008, my camera gear used to capture images all over the world has changed quite a bit. In that first year, I left with a trusty Canon point-and-shoot camera. That worked really well. But over time I switched to the mirrorless, micro four-thirds camera systems because I wanted to increase the quality of my images and really explore photography, but without the addition of a huge bulky DSLR (which I had seen other travelers tote around for the first week of their travels until it was abandoned for a more convenient smartphone.)

On Making the Switch to a Mirrorless Camera System

Knowing that I wanted the flexibility to play with manual settings, learn more about photography basics, and find a camera I was willing to carry in my purse, I first looked straight at the new mirrorless camera systems I had seen raved on camera blogs. They won me over. Back then it was this pro photographer’s review, and since then this photographer’s review has me assured going to the micro four-thirds system was wise.

In 2010, I was an early adopter to the mirrorless line and first opted for the Panasonic Lumix GF series (a GF1 in fact). Since then, I loved the camera so much that I upgraded to a Panasonic GX7 in 2014 to coincide with an overland trip through Africa. The future models of the GF series became more mass consumer oriented, and the true predecessor to the GF1 moved to the GX line. Both lines have gorgeous cameras, but the GX series has more control and is made to shoot more easily in manual mode, where the GF series takes similarly gorgeous photos, but is easiest in auto or scene mode.

Double bonus, my Panasonic GX7 was named by National Geographic as one of the top 10 compact cameras for travelers.

Those other reviews I linked to are the professionals take on the camera system, but below I review this from the viewpoint of a self-taught travel photographer on the road for 6+ years now.

The short story on this camera?

Great depth of field, super compact, and really durable (it even survived a motorbike accident in Laos, getting soaked at Songkran in Thailand, and the windy red sands in Bagan, Myanmar. My GX7 survived dusty roads on safari in Tanzania and the waters of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe). The technology for micro-four thirds cameras is progressing rapidly and these cameras are increasingly popular because they so gracefully bridge the gap between professional camera gear (DSLRs) and simple point-and-shoots.

panasonic lumix review

Why I Upgraded My Camera?

Now, while I am far from a professional photographer, the photos I’ve taken these past 4+ years with my Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera are the best photos I’ve taken in my life. Since leaving in late 2008, I have taken bucket-loads of photos—I uploaded thousands of photos into my travel photo galleries. Each of those photos represents a pulse of life now long forgotten, or a rare and beautiful vista I captured forever in my lens, and still others function like a time machine, propelling me right back into the midst of some sort of existential conversation about life-family-humanity-politics-love with a friend met on the road.

camera review

My photos eloquently tell the story of my years on the road (and sometimes far better than my words if you happened to catch my writing in those early months). This blog has chronicled my journey and my handy point-and-shoot Canon camera served nicely as a pocket-sized, go-anywhere way to document each new place.

But a year and a half ago I upgraded my gear and invested in a camera with interchangeable lenses, full manual mode, and some other bells and whistles. I also commited to learning how to use Lightroom so I can (and do) post-process every single photo you see on this site since 2011.

Picking a new camera was tricky. So, in 2010 I researched and happened upon a professional photographer’s review of this new-fangled type of camera, the Panasonic Lumix MFT. His review is stellar because he has the fancy ones, but still loved aspects of the new technology (and took gorgeous photos). So I bought that exact camera and loved it to pieces. I would still be loving it but my dad gave me the newest version, the GX7 in January 2014 for my birthday and now I love that one to absolute pieces.

lumix depth of field review

Let’s get down to the meat of this review now and start with my overall opinion:

This just is one of the best travel cameras on the market if you want a bit more power and flexibility than a point-and-shoot but a camera light enough to carry everywhere.

What I Love About My Lumix

  • The cameras depth of field from my 20mm pancake kit lens; this lens took my food photography to the next level of drool-worthiness.
  • My lenses. The 20mm kit lens is versatile and took every single photo on this site from August 2010- January 2014. And, even zoom lenses are compact. I often now shoot with my 14-45mm, and it’s a good everyday lens. I debated on which zoom lens to get, and the 45-200mm zoom performed pretty well on my safari in Africa.
  • The camera is small and sturdy and kind of retro looking (people actually often think it’s old-school film!).
  • I take it everywhere because it’s light and compact (thanks to the micro four thirds technology).
  • The price was just right; although the GF1 is no longer on the market, the newer versions in the GF series are in the same price bracket (generally less than $800 for the body and one lens). And in upgrading to the GX7, the price was a bit higher, but all my lenses still worked!

Drawbacks to My Micro Four-Thirds

The main difference between a MFT camera and the large, professional DSLR lies in the mirrorless technology. The MFT manages to forgo some of the mirrors inside the camera body, and thus shrunk in size much closer to the pocket cameras, but still supports interchangeable lenses, captures RAW images, and takes a fantastic photo. Without the mirror though, and with the lighter weight moving the camera, there are some issues.

1) It borders on craptastic in low-light situations. That is noted in just about every review of this type of camera because of the technology needed to make it so compact (Jodi at LegalNomads has the Olympus PEN micro four thirds and reports the same!) On the flip side though, I took all the photos from Loy Krathong in Thailand last fall with the GF1, and they turned out beautifully, so it’s still not fully terrible.

1) UPDATED: It’s good in low-light situations. The newest micro four thirds cameras are a lot better now than the 2010 versions. I was an early adopter and the low-light performance was just a growing pain in the technology. My GX7 did very, very well on my Africa travels and I noticed very few disappointing low-light moments.

2) UPDATED: No viewfinder, just a LCD screen. The GF series continues to have just an LCD screen, and new versions articulate; I used this for years and made-due because only strong mid-day sun really made it inconvenient. Now that the GX7 has an electronic viewfinder though, I found myself using it a lot more than I thought I would. It was a nice bonus in the upgrade, though it does make the camera a little bulkier and it’s not quite as sleek with the viewfinder sticking out a bit.

3) You have to switch lenses. A professional will laugh at this comment, but if you love the ease of a point-and-shoot, the 20mm lens has no built-in zoom, so you have to switch over to a different lens, often in dusty, dirty travel situations, and it’s more work. But worth it.

panasonic lumix gf1

The Physical Side of My Camera

I love the weight of the camera (about 10 ounces with the 20mm pancake lens), and how it feels in my hand when shooting. And I love that it’s so much less intimidating in travel situations because it’s so low-profile. All of the buttons are easily pressed with just my right hand, and the dial on the top rotates easily to switch between the different modes (now done on the touch-screen of the latest release, the Lumix GF6).

This is what my GF1 looks like, the different buttons, and my lens so you can get a feel for the small and compact camera. Note that the newest models look similar, but have fewer buttons and a touch-screen LCD panel. Every button I need to quickly change controls is simple with just my right hand in most cases, and that little red dot near the shutter-button quickly activates video so I can rapidly catch special moments as they happen!

You can see what the GX7 looks like here, it has a viewfinder, but many of the same exact buttons as the GF1, which is why I love it as the predecessor to my GF1.

My Panasonic GF1 with a 20mm aspherical pancake lens.

Why the Micro-Four-Thirds is Great for this Traveler

  • Photography fascinates me and I love learning new things. With this camera I have the ability to sit in a pretty spot and play with composition, exposure, shutter-speed, aperture, and all sorts of different modes to craft a photo that accurately reflects what I see in front of me.
  • It’s opened me up to the art of photography, the crafting of an image as opposed to the more mindless act of documenting with a quick snapshot in each place.
  • It fits in my purse and I rarely groan about “how heavy it is” or wonder “if I should leave it behind for the day.” (In fact, with the pancake lens on, it fits inside a zoom-lens case I found at Ritz camera and this is where it has lived ever since when I am on the road).
  • The camera takes beautiful portraits, landscapes, and close-up food photos—that covers 85 percent of what I take when traveling.
  • It was affordable, the GF series is usually in the $500 range with a kit lens, the GX series comes in closer to $1000+ for the body and a lens.

GF1 review
I bought my Panasonic GF1 in August 2010 and there was a learning curve (heck, who am I kidding, there is still a learning curve!) but I love that it truly does make a bridge between the point-and-shoot cameras and a full (read: expensive) DSLR—when I’m flustered by the manual mode settings it’s a quick flip of the button into auto mode and it’s petite and light. It’s worth noting that I also now consistently use Lightroom and do post-editing, and that has made a big difference in photo-quality.

And now that I upgraded, I am so happy every day with my Panasonic Lumix GX7. It’s a gorgeous camera and many on-the-road travelers see the low-profile camera with so much power behind it and swear they’ll get one for their next trip.

I invested in this camera because I fell in love with photography over the many years since I left in 2008—without much theatre, acting, and dance in my life, photography slowly filled its place on the road. One day in the future, I may add in a full DSLR if my photography skills ever call for it, but right now this camera is serving exactly the role I need on my travels and I consider it a solid investment.

Do you have a micro four thirds? Thoughts on traveling with it? Any other travel sized cameras you particularly love?

A Little Planning… Vaccinating for World Travel

vaccinations for world travel

After hatching a slightly crazy plan to travel with my 11-year-old niece for seven months across Southeast Asia, there was a lot I’ve had to get in order as her primary guardian in this endeavor. Top on the list was tackling our homeschooling travel plan. Then I had flights, accommodation, soothing the fears of a tween … oh yeah, and handling her travel vaccines!

In just three short weeks, instead of lunch at our kitchen table back home in Florida, my niece would sit down to a plate of rice and flavorful veggies while no doubt discussing the many differences she sees between Thailand and Florida. But before that happened, we had a few last vaccines for world travel to track down and administer. I was responsible for many of her childhood vaccines, and I had already done my own travel vaccinations before my round the world trip, so I knew what we were facing: Some travel vaccines are a breeze to secure, while others are pricey so some travel clinics wait days or weeks for several travelers to need it—then they open a vial and administer the vaccine all at one. Plus! Since I had received many of my vaccines four years earlier, I was surprised to learn several of my vaccinations had already run out and I would need boosters. That meant we started this process early, and you should, too.

Here’s everything I know about vaccinations for world travel after going through it a fair few times with myself, as well as in preparation for various international trips with my two nieces and two nephews.

What Vaccinations Do You Need for World Travel?

Child Travel Vaccinations

Although this question is best answered by your nearest travel clinic, you should also read on to have an idea of how many you might need. Also, the Center for Disease Control is the best source on the internet for the vaccination-inclined researching recommended shots. As you dive in, you’ll see that some shots require staggered administration—start the vaccination process at least six to eight weeks before you leave.

These are the shots I have right now—some are standard childhood ones, the vaccines usually reserved for world travelers are marked with an asterisk*:

  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Meningitis
  • MMR (measles, mumps and rubella)
  • Polio
  • Tetanus/Diphtheria (Td)* (get a booster before you leave)
  • Typhoid*
  • Yellow Fever* (a proof-required vaccine for several countries)

I do not have these vaccines, but some other travelers do, depending on the regions they’re visiting:

  • Japanese Encephalitis
  • Rabies
  • Cholera
  • Chicken pox booster if you’ve never had it/only had the vaccine

Quick Tip: Find Out If Your Travel Vaccines Have Expired or Lost Efficacy
If you are a frequent world traveler, keep in mind that many travel vaccines do not last for a lifetime. Instead, they require boosters every five to ten years. I had to track down a travel clinic in South Africa before beginning my six months in Africa because it was only an off-hand conversation with another traveler that reminded me my typhoid vaccines began to lose efficacy within five years (for the typhoid shot versus oral pill, decline in immunization starts at 1.5 years and within three years it’s only 50% as effective!). Use the CDC’s guidelines to determine if you require a booster for your travel vaccines to provide full protection (then ask at a travel clinic to be doubly sure!).

World Travel Vaccinations for Kids

Homeschool travel aquarium
Ana on a homeschool field trip to the Florida Aquarium before we left to travel.

My niece dreaded her travel vaccinations and begged me to put them off as long as possible. But, it had to happen—I wasn’t comfortable leaving the United States without all of her vaccines and immunizations up-to-date. Now that we’re a part of the homeschooling community, vaccines are a controversial issue (and man, there is heated debate about vaccinating kids for travel). Suffice to say that, although I understand both sides, she’s 11 years old and we chose to vaccinate—I believe her body and mind can handle vaccines far better than the alternative … which would be coming down with typhoid fever, meningitis, hepatitis, etc.

We used information on Center for Disease Control’s website to determine the shots necessary for Asia (they have every possible country listed!) and perused the CDC’s child vaccination pages specifically. Armed with a list of possibilities and her shot records, we went to the local health department because her pediatrician did not carry some of the more exotic vaccines (namely, typhoid). She now has these four vaccines (all of which I also have):

  1. Hepatitis A
  2. Typhoid (the shot, not oral)
  3. Tetanus booster
  4. Meningitis
  5. Chickenpox booster

We used the traditional U.S. schedule throughout her childhood for her vaccinations, so the tetanus and chicken pox were boosters on top of her previous vaccines. Hep A, meningitis, and typhoid were specifically for our Asia travels. The only common travel shot she doesn’t have at this point is Yellow Fever since we are not traveling to Africa or South America.

For comparison, right before I left on my solo round the world travels back in 2008 I received: Hepatitis A, oral typhoid, yellow fever, and a tetanus booster. My public university required meningitis, so I had received that just a few years before I left.

The only two “Asia” vaccines neither of us have are rabies and Japanese encephalitis—they are not recommended for our trip due to our planned country list (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar).

Quick Tip: A Note on Vaccinating for Chicken Pox

We are in a transition period in the world where you are either old enough to have contracted chickenpox as a child (my four brothers and I had an epic chickenpox party), or you instead received the vaccine in childhood. If you received the vaccine and you have never received a booster, talk to your doctor or travel clinic about your situation to determine if you should. My niece’s doctor absolutely recommended that all teens receive a booster, and they administered hers a couple years ahead of schedule because of our planned travels (and because of the danger of contracting it after childhood).

How Much Do Travel Vaccines Cost?

Travel vaccination costs can stack up if you use a travel clinic in the United States—especially if you are vaccinating a whole family of soon-to-be world travelers. Consider that a travel blogging family managed to save about $1,000 by getting their shots at the beginning of their round the world trip at a reputable travel clinic in Thailand: Cut the Cost of Travel Vaccinations.

Many health insurance companies cover the basic travel vaccines, but it may cost several hundred dollars for rabies, Japanese Encephalitis, or some of the more obscure vaccines. Visit your local travel clinic for their recommended vaccination list, then you can price out by seeing which ones your doctor can administer for low-cost or free (the Heps and the boosters of childhood vaccines), and which require the specialization of a travel clinic (Yellow Fever, typhoid, and others).

Additional Travel Vaccination and Health Resources

Government Resources and Vaccination Research

Staying Healthy While Traveling

  • Vaccines protect you from the biggies, but you should have a solid strategy in place to stay healthy on the road from diarrheal illnesses.
  • Things like the Zika virus are not something you can vaccinate against, but is something many travelers should maintain an awareness of (particularly women considering getting pregnant). Be sure to talk to your travel clinic doctors about any health concerns particularly to the country or region you’re visiting.
  • The reason it’s so important you check knowledgeable sources is because there are sometimes small loopholes for something specific to your trip that others may not have written about for their own trip. For example, in order to secure a long-term visa for Spain, I had to have a tuberculosis skin test and show those results. It’s not a vaccine, but it’s in the realm and it was only through asking the right questions I knew to have this as a part of my yearlong visa application.


With our travel vaccinations handled, we are just three weeks away from our big Southeast Asian backpacking adventure! We’ve settled into a homeschool groove and we are ready to take her sixth-grade course-load on the road. Her virtual school teachers are enthusiastically on board with our plan, so it’s happening.

I admit that things like figuring out our travel vaccines was the easy part. The homeschooling part of our world travels daunts me—I know she will naturally absorb so much information once we are traveling and seeing new places, but I want to cover her academics as well.

It’s seems a bit unreal to me that we announced our travel plans more than five weeks ago—time is slippery, elusive, and now down to the wire! Through it all though, I’m fairly grateful that the panic attacks and overwhelming uncertainty that accompanied my first long-term trip three years ago are no longer present. I often email soon-to-be round the world travelers this calming advice about pre-trip jitters:

Whatever you forget, you can buy on the road. If it’s left unfinished, you’ll find the way to either finish it or work around it. Once you get on the airplane instincts kick in, the adventures begin, and whatever you’re stressed about planning-wise will eventually work out because it has to work out.

Now I’m forced to take my own advice! If there’s a travel vaccine we forget, we can receive it in Thailand. If we’re missing a school book, we will make do or have it shipped to us! Because one way or another, we are boarding that flight in three weeks and heading to Thailand!

Be a Travel MacGyver on the road with these four items!

A Little Creativity… Six Tiny Travel Packing Hacks for Travel MacGyvers

Traveling lacks predictability. For a Type A-er like me that causes heart palpitations at random times, but I also love the constant pressure to think on my feet and come up with instant and creative solutions to problems I never anticipated.

Sometimes this means just verbal and active solutions, but other times it’s a mad scrounge through my backpack to find the needed ingredients to diffuse that bomb in my hostel room.

Wait. Errr. You mean there’s no bomb?